When disciplining children, is the use of any kind of physical punishment ever a good solution? Is smacking your child acceptable? Or should it be avoided at all costs? These are questions that often cause debate among parents.
Let’s look at some of the main ideas.
What is smacking?
Smacking is defined as the act of striking, with an open hand, a body part of another person (excluding the face) with the intention of causing temporary pain without meaning to cause physical injury.
Spanking usually refers to smacking the buttocks or the back of the thighs. When talking about smacking or spanking children, both verbs are usually interchangeable.
There have been many periods in the history where physical punishment was a ‘normal’ part of life:
- The public could commit violence against people found guilty and held captive in a pillory. By 1839 this was abolished in most US states.
- Also in the US, slave-owners could whip their slaves. This was abolished in theory, at the end of the Civil War (1865) but many slave-owners continued to hurt their slaves even after the war.
- Husbands beat wives with little chance of being arrested. Unfortunately, this still happens today, although it is not as widespread as in the past.
- Sailors could be flogged by ship officers. The US Senate abolished this practice in 1850 and Britain abolished it more recently, in 1957.
- Jail guards could whip or cane prisoners. In the US, this practice ended in the state of Delaware in 1952. In Britain, the last flogging took place in 1967.
- Boxers were expected to beat each other senseless up to the point where they could no longer function.
Smacking children throughout history
Historical records show that smacking was first practiced in Ancient Greece. At that time, it was a pagan practice for increasing fertility in women who were unable to conceive a child. Barren women were smacked by the priests. The practice of smacking was later on introduced by the Catholic Church as a means by which adult women could have their sins removed. They were smacked by the priest after confession.
Other historical data show that links between smacking or spanking and child outcomes, as we know it, were made in nineteenth-century Europe. It was also around this time that Sigmund Freud first published what later became known as ‘Oedipus/Electra Theories’. These theories indicated that children were being sexually abused by their parents because of the very strict environment in homes during that period. This resulted in an outcry from the general public and Freud lost his funding. He later stated that children were creating these fantasies.
School teachers were allowed to use physical punishments on their students to correct the children’s behavior. However, laws were passed to abolish smacking in state-run schools in Britain (in 1986) and in privately funded schools (in 1998).
In 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada prohibited corporal punishment in Canadian schools. However, punishment in schools is still allowed in approximately 60% of the states in the US.
Today, there are 29 countries around the world that make it illegal for parents, teachers or anyone else to spank a child. There are 113 countries that prohibit corporal punishment in schools. In North America, however, physical punishment – done by a parent, as long as it is not severe – is still seen as a necessary discipline for children. It’s thought to be a good corrective measure for a child’s behavior and is not seen as child abuse.
Australian parents have similar views. According to Pinky McKay, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Parenting Author, Infant Massage Instructor, and mum of five, ‘…research showed that up to 90% of Australian mothers believed that smacking was acceptable. Younger mothers were more in favor of smacking than older mothers’.
Smacking is not effective in behavior management
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that smacking is not effective in managing child behavior. In fact, smacking can have a negative impact on your child’s development.
In a study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, researchers at Tulane University provide the strongest evidence that smacking might make children act out more in the long run. Nearly 2,500 children were involved in the study and those children who were smacked more frequently at the age of 3 were much more aggressive by age 5.
According to Dr. Catherine Taylor, Associate Professor of Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane, ‘The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 increased by 50% if he had been smacked more than twice in the month before the study began’.
Psychological effects of smacking a child
All family studies about smacking children agree that smacking children interferes not only with their emotional development, but it also affects their brain development as a whole.
The negative emotions felt by a child when his parents smack him can never produce positive reactions.
Physical punishment can have the following effects:
#1: Increase child aggression and antisocial behavior
While growing up, children learn the bases of establishing social relationships. Whether these relationships are healthy or not depends on what was learned as correct or wrong behavior during childhood.
Using physical force to teach appropriate behavior can never be the way to go. If a child learns that physical or verbal abuse is the right thing to do, he will be a violent adult who will then think that smacking his own children is the right thing to do.
#2: Low self-esteem
To children, their parents are everything. When children do something wrong, most of the time it is unintentional. The way parents approach children and try to discipline their behavior will have a clear impact on their mental health development.
Parents should correct their children with love, compassion, and empathy. Smacking can never be done, or appreciated, from a place of love. Any person receiving physical punishment perceives it for what it is: a measure intended to correct a wrong behavior.
Children make mistakes all the time; that’s how they learn. It’s up to the parents how they accompany and discipline their kids.
Often, children talk to other children and find out how their parents discipline them. A child can be set up for future mental health problems if he finds out that, in his family, violence is the way to go, when this doesn’t happen in other families.
#3: Damage to the parent-child relationship
Many parents might not know how to discipline their children effectively and that could be the reason they keep using physical punishment.
Let’s say this once more: smacking your child is the wrong thing to do. If you do it – even if you’ve always believed it was harmless – stop hitting your child now.
Look for professional help to find an effective method to help your child with appropriate behavior.
Childhood is a very short period of time when we all establish the bases of our relationships with others. Make sure you’re the kind of parent your child feels safe to go back to every time he needs some guidance.
Why should parents stop smacking children?
Physical violence is wrong. Under any circumstances. There is no teaching happening when physical punishment is applied.
When Will Smith smacked Chris Rock in the Oscars ceremony, he obviously gave little thought to the consequences. Although many people reacted by saying he did a good thing, it was clear that it was the wrong thing. Violence is never the way.
If we’ve made it so clear with adults, why can’t we do the same with regard to children? Any educational psychologist would agree that children grow up copying and repeating what they see at home.
It’s not just about respecting children’s rights; it’s also about the kind of upbringing a child receives when his own parents use violence on him.
There are many reasons why smacking children is not acceptable:
#1: Smacking teaches kids that hitting others is okay
Research shows that there is a direct link between corporal punishment in childhood and aggressive or violent behavior during the teenage and adult years. If hitting others was part of the family discipline, when young people have their own families, they will assume it’s okay to use physical abuse against children to correct their behavior.
#2: Smacking makes a child preoccupied with feelings of anger and revenge
Instead of learning more effective and humane methods of solving a problem, a child becomes preoccupied with feelings of anger and fantasies of revenge. The child’s behavior hasn’t been discussed; he has just been shamed and this is a very uncomfortable emotion to let develop on its own.
#3: Children who are smacked for ‘bad behavior’ only want their parents’ attention
These days, parents have so many responsibilities they often have little or no time for their children. Sometimes, children act out to get their parents’ attention. It’s basic family psychology. How sad for a child that negative attention is better than no attention.
We live in a fast-moving demanding world, and we must discipline our kids but there are ways of doing it without the increased risk of damaging our relationships with loved ones.
#4: Smacking can make children resent their parents
Most human beings would find it hard to feel loving towards a person who hit them. Although smacking might make a child obey a parent, this is not because the child wants to obey. Children who are smacked by their parents tend to do what their parents want for fear of being hit again.
#5: Smacking can cause injury to a child
Blows delivered to the lower end of the spinal column send shock waves along the length of the spine; this can cause injury.
Dr. John Irvine, a child psychologist, believes in training and not taming. He says, ‘Smacking is meant to hurt. I’m about where you try to heal the child, not hurt the child. Kids who get hit a lot often grow up to become hitters; you don’t get good kids if you belt them’.
Ms. McKay emphasized this: “I strongly believe that good discipline is about maintaining our own dignity and our child’s dignity, and smacking does neither. I am bewildered by the logic that if an older child lashes out at a younger one, this is bullying or how, at a certain age, hitting another person becomes assault, and we certainly wouldn’t condone being slapped by our partners, yet we can accept adults smacking little children’.
Ms. McKay adds that both parents should make an inventory of their ‘parenting toolboxes’. She invites parents to ask themselves what they learned and absorbed, while growing up. Parents should ask themselves what they learned from their parents and from their culture.
Dr. William Sears, MD, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and Martha Sears, RN – parents of 8 children – say directly ‘Smacking does not work’. Dr. Sears stressed that physical abuse does not work for the child, the parents, or society. It does not promote good behavior but creates distance between a parent and child. Smacking contributes to a violent society.
Results of a study made by the National Institute of Mental Health and the University of New Hampshire and led by Murray Straus show that spanking actually decreases IQ to a significant degree. After conducting research across 32 countries around the world, the study showed a lower national IQ in countries where corporal punishment is common.
A child needs gentle instruction, supported by a strong foundation of love and respect. Children should be loved and nurtured and not hurt in any way. If you do this, your children, in turn, will learn to love and respect others and will pass it on to their children when the time comes. Instead of passing on violence from one generation to the next, generations of families will flourish, filled with love, respect, and high self-esteem.
Members’ thoughts and experiences with smacking
Below are some stories from BellyBelly Members, which have been included anonymously. There are also discussions in our Forums, including a poll to see what percentage of parents are and are not smacking their children.
You can read the poll and discussion here.
Smacking experiences #1
‘As a child, I was smacked if I had done something wrong. I quite often remember my stepfather getting the belt and threatening me with it. I never copped the belt but am sure my older brothers did at some stage. I have a vivid memory of being smacked several times across the head as a teenager (aged12-13), by my mother, when I refused to go to school after feeling ‘sick’ again. I did bring this up with my mother a few years ago, as we now have a close bond, and she has no recollection of ever doing it.
‘As a mother now myself, even though I don’t like to publicly admit it because of the looks I get, I do at times smack my children. It is usually after they have frustrated me no end and I end up lashing out. I have never smacked them around the head (thanks, mum), but they have copped either a smack on their bottoms, back of legs, and occasionally on upper torso. I don’t feel better for smacking my children because the guilt is instant, and nor do they really learn from it, but once they hit that button that is it, and I lose control. I can confidently say that I don’t repeatedly smack; they are just smacked the once’.
Smacking experiences #2
‘I always swore I would never smack my children. As a child I was sometimes smacked with things that left marks on my body. The resentment, anger, and sadness that it created; I didn’t want my children to experience. My husband was smacked as a child, too – more forcefully that I was, it seems. I wouldn’t dare smack my partner if he did something wrong, so why would I smack my children?
‘As it is, I actually smacked one of my children long ago, despite previously having gone off my tree for the one time I saw my husband smack one of our children; the anger it created in me was huge. I know he did it out of frustration. It had been a very difficult day where our child had been going nuts non-stop for hours and wasn’t listening to anyone. We’d never seen behavior that bad before. But the time when I did it, I was a mess emotionally. It was just before I went onto anti-depressants and was not coping. I had no patience, no support…. I lost my cool. I had instant guilt for making my child cry. I regret it and I don’t want to ever do it again. It makes me sad thinking about it. I am working hard at taking deep breaths at times when I am feeling that pressure build-up, so I can deal with my frustration better and give myself time out before trying to deal with it again’.
Smacking experiences #3
‘I was smacked once, aged about 2, because my brother, aged nearly 6, had messed with the volume control on Dad’s posh new stereo. He didn’t believe that my brother didn’t know which way was ‘down’ when he turned it up, and we both got a smack on the bum. I don’t actually remember being smacked. I remember mum finding a red handprint on my behind in the bath (about 15 minutes after) and shouting and shouting at my dad.
‘From that moment on, I was never smacked. The one other time my brother was smacked my mother told my dad she’d already left one violent man and she was happy to do so again. Her first husband had beaten her, and their 4 kids and it had turned her completely off violence. I had a lot of respect for my parents. My mother could look at me and I’d behave; my dad’s tone of voice can still give me a cold feeling behind my ears. Their approval and love and praise were bountiful when earned, and I sought it.
‘I do not smack my daughter. It would be great if I could raise her to have the respect for me, I have for my parents, and I don’t believe it is respectful to hit people. I think it will be easier for me to teach herself worth if I do not smack. I think violence is dismissive and undermines confidence. Though I intend and hope never to smack, I still find, in moments of high frustration, that I am tempted to hand-smack, and I have to stop myself and walk away’.
Smacking experiences #4
‘I was smacked occasionally as a child; however, being one of the youngest of my siblings, I did not have to endure what my elder siblings did. My father had a bamboo cane, and I remember he used to take it out on the eldest especially. She would have red welts over her legs, and this was not even for being very naughty. As time went on, something must have changed, or maybe my Mum put her foot down, because he no longer used the cane. On the few instances I was smacked by him, I still remember clearly to this day – nearly 20 years later. My mother occasionally smacked us, or threatened us with a wooden spoon, but it never bothered me as much as my father’s smacking.
‘Remembering some of these instances from childhood so clearly, gives me all the more motivation to prevent my children from having the same fearful memories of their parents. I am not perfect, however, and in moments of extreme frustration I have given a smack on the hand or a light smack on the bottom – something I felt terrible for afterwards, and do not wish to repeat in the future’.
Smacking experiences #5
‘I have a memory of my dad smacking me once. Just once. And the memory of it stays with me and makes we wince, even though it was not a hard smack. It was probably justified. I was about 8 years old and had been incredibly disobedient, and it was at the same time as my grandpa was very ill so, no doubt, my dad was under a huge amount of strain.
‘My Mum never smacked us, although she threatened with the wooden spoon occasionally.
‘When I am at the end of my tether with my 3 little ones, I have nearly smacked. I ended up smacking the bed near my 3 year old’s legs, but it really frightened me that I nearly smacked her.
‘If I feel that melt down and that ‘Oh my god, I am so frustrated. I am gonna smack her’ feeling, I lock myself in the loo for a few minutes to calm myself down. I hate the feeling. But my husband and I have talked about it and have chosen too never smack. He was never smacked as a child. We have talked it over, and we will stick to being a family that doesn’t smack’.
Smacking experiences #6
‘I was smacked when I was a child, and it was always by Mum. If I was disobedient with Dad, he would get Mum to smack me later. It was never very hard, and we always had to wait until an hour or so had passed before we got smacked. I think the anticipation was usually worse than the smack. To be honest, what I really hated about smacking was the humiliation of it rather than the pain – especially since Mum’s special wooden spoon broke after about 10 years’ use on my older siblings and she could never find a suitable replacement; she was forever lamenting the inferior quality of Australian wooden spoons!
‘I always swore that I would never smack my children but to my horror, I gave my son’s hand a smack about a month ago after asking him not to touch something (a pile of folded washing) about 100 times. Even though it wasn’t hard enough to make him cry, I felt awful afterwards, and I hope to never repeat the performance. It was pure frustration, and the stupid thing was that my thinking was so clouded by frustration that other solutions just didn’t occur to me. I could have moved him to a different room or put the washing in a different place.
‘I think that the lesson I should have learned is that when I’m really frustrated, I need to walk away so that I can think clearly and find a better solution. I just hope I remember it next time I get very annoyed’.
You can read more in New Study- What’s Really Behind Your Child’s Behaviour and 11 Reasons Why Smacking Is Ineffective and Damaging.
You can also benefit from the work of Katherine Winter-Sellery, founder of Conscious Parenting Revolution.